Natural disasters or unchecked development?
[Daniel R. Moss is a real estate consultant with a master’s degree in city planning from M.I.T. He can be reached at: firstname.lastname@example.org.]
Whether it’s flooding, wildfires, or drought, natural disasters seem to be dominating the news lately. Flooded streets in New Orleans are etched upon our minds. Southern California is on fire for the second time in four years. And now Atlanta is suddenly worried about running out of drinking water.
The human interest stories abound – homes lost, people displaced, insurance claims, and business disruption. Less often do we think about how decades of poor planning and development decisions have put so many human lives at nature’s mercy. Even more rarely do we make hard choices to prevent the same disasters from happening again.
Let’s start with Katrina. New Orleans has always been subject to flooding, since much of the city lies below the Mississippi River and other water bodies nearby. There is a good reason that the historic parts of the city were settled in the first place – the French Quarter and the Garden District are higher in elevation than the rest of the city, and they can be adequately protected by existing levee systems.
As the Army Corps of Engineers has known for years, the rest of the city is in great jeopardy of flooding from major hurricanes, even if the levee systems are built to code and properly maintained, which they usually are not.
Furthermore, extensive canal and levee building in southern Louisiana has channelized the Mississippi River, eliminating natural relief points upstream, and is slowly eroding vital wetlands areas downstream that buffer New Orleans from coastal storms. Faced with the devastation in low-lying New Orleans neighborhoods, one might expect local politicians, housing non-profits, and the few remaining residents to see the light. Instead, most of them seem to want to do everything they can to put everything back exactly the way it was.
Only a few out-of-town planners have been willing to propose the controversial idea of keeping residents out of low-lying areas and turning them into parks which could also serve as catch-basins for floodwater. In a city that can barely provide basic infrastructure and services for a much-reduced population, this seems like a pretty rational idea.
Ultimately, the difficulty of trying to do business and develop real estate in New Orleans may overcome the politics. Although there are a number of national investors, non-profits, and developers who are trying to rebuild the city, they are finding it very hard to put together viable deals, due to uncertain market conditions, inadequate infrastructure, and limited insurance availability.
The end result will be a smaller city. But without a centralized planning effort, the devastated neighborhoods will continue to look and act like wastelands, with little pockets of development surrounded by a sea of blight. As New Orleans continues to struggle, other cities in the Gulf region are booming as they gladly pick up the slack.
Next let’s look at Southern California. In general this is a region that gets less than 10 inches of rain each year, and only survives by importing fresh water from hundreds, if not thousands, of miles away.